Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Bradley anticipates tough matchup against Poland
Jeff Carlisle, ESPNsoccernet
When U.S. men's national team manager Bob Bradley convenes his team in Krakow this week for Wednesday's friendly against Poland, it will be with the primary aim of seeing his European-based players up close for the first time this calendar year. And although he no doubt will be encouraged by the progress of some of his charges, the status of other players will be a cause for concern.
Cory Gibbs could be the solution at the troublesome left back spot. (Icon SMI)
It's clear that some performers, such as son Michael, have hit a rich vein of form with their clubs. But other members of the overseas contingent, such as Fulham's Carlos Bocanegra and Derby County's Benny Feilhaber, have been struggling for playing time. Given the key roles these two performers could play down the road, as well as on Wednesday, the plight of each player is more than a little worrying. Bocanegra has formed a solid partnership with fellow center back Oguchi Onyewu, and maintaining that level of understanding -- and sharpness -- will require getting more playing time than he is currently getting, especially with World Cup qualifying set to commence later this year.
The same is true for Feilhaber, and compounding matters was his surprise omission from the U.S. U-23 national team that just qualified for the Beijing Olympics. It was a snub that raised some eyebrows, especially given the glimpses of ability he has shown with the senior team.
The plight of players riding the pine in Europe is "always a concern," according to Bradley, although his evaluations of the two aforementioned players couldn't be more different.
"I've had good discussions with [Bocanegra]," said Bradley while attending last week's Olympic qualifying tournament. "Obviously, he's in a little bit of a unique situation given that he'll be free this summer, but certainly [Fulham manager] Roy Hodgson thought enough of him to make sure that he was going to be there throughout the spring, even if it's just to provide cover. And Carlos, I think, has kept a good frame of mind."
Bradley's assessment of Feilhaber's situation was blunt to say the least.
"He has to grow up," the coach said of the 23-year-old midfielder. "He has to mature as a player. He has to understand, day in and day out, how to earn the respect of the people he plays with."
Bradley went on to add that Feilhaber's omission from the Olympic team was down to form and fitness, but he also said that the player's success this past summer at the Gold Cup, when he scored the winning goal in the final against Mexico with a sublime volley, had caused him to lose his focus. That Feilhaber has played in 15 national team games while making only 20 appearances at club level the past three seasons would appear to bear this out, as does the fact that, in the past year, he has failed to make much of an impression on four head coaches. "You never want to take away anything from a player at a moment when he's achieved something or when the team has achieved something," Bradley said of Feilhaber's Gold Cup performance. "But it is incredibly important that the bigger picture is still there. In that regard, the growing process for Benny needs to include all of this.
U.S. vs. Poland
Wisla Stadium, Krakow, Poland
3:30 p.m. ET
"I'm hopeful that, as difficult as I'm sure it was to not get named to the team for qualifying for the U-23 tournament, that he can again see the bigger picture of everything that's happened and realize that we still think there is potential. And that in the long run, with continued work and improvement, he can grow and help the team."
Bradley added that these are things he has discussed with Feilhaber at length, but when asked whether the message had been received well, the U.S. manager would say only, "We'll see."
Of course, the U.S. isn't the only national team with players who find themselves in these situations. Poland midfielder Jacek Krzynowek has struggled for playing time with Bundesliga side Wolfsburg. But given Poland's recent qualification for Euro 2008, the feel-good factor has largely overshadowed such concerns.
Coach Leo Beenhakker has fashioned a side that has relied on solid defending and the on-the-ball wizardry of forward Ebi Smolarek. Smolarek's nine goals in Euro 2008 qualifying paved the way for Poland to reach the finals for the first time in team history, and his free role as the second striker should prove to be a big challenge for the presumed central tandem of Bocanegra and Onyewu.The team will be without injured Borussia Dortmund midfielder Jakub Blaszczykowski, but his absence won't change in any way the kind of side Bradley expects his team to face.
"Beenhakker has done a good job," Bradley said. "The team seems to have a good mix of tactics, good mentality, hard to play against; some of the same things that we've seen in some of our other opponents. So I think we would expect this to be a hard game, and we know the challenge of beating European teams in Europe is always a difficult one."
It's also a challenge the Americans have had a bit more success with lately, given their 1-0 win over Switzerland in October. Recently, the U.S. also has enjoyed an odd hex over Poland on European soil, gaining a 1-0 win in Plock in 2004 as well as another 1-0 triumph in March 2006, when Clint Dempsey's goal won the "Blizzard of Kaiserslautern."
Given Poland's recent run of form, one gets the sense that Bradley is expecting a more difficult game this time around, which -- given his aim of playing tough opponents anywhere and everywhere -- suits him just fine.
"I think we always try to look at games in the sense of understanding what it means to play in a hard game; understanding how to play against good teams, knowing that when the games are harder, all of the little things that you talk about become more important. We certainly felt good about some of the results at the end of last year, and you want to continue to build on that."Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at email@example.com.